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Experts share remarkable effects of removing restrictive dams from river: 'A 15-year effort'

"We've taken the first steps, but we have a massive set of challenges ahead of us."

"We've taken the first steps, but we have a massive set of challenges ahead of us."

Photo Credit: iStock

The removal of dams that restricted water flow has led to the restoration of a river in Maine.

As explained by The Nature Conservancy, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provided $2.9 million in funding to assist in removing "narrow culverts, small dams and other hindrances" to revive the Penobscot River. 

This helps bring incredible progress to "a 15-year effort" to restore the river started by the Penobscot Nation and the utility PPL-Maine and continued by the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, a nonprofit partnership that includes the two aforementioned organizations as well as conservation groups and state and federal agencies.

Thanks to the river restoration, the environment has improved for local marine wildlife. The removal of the blockages allowed alewives to return to the Mattamiscontis Lake, whose waters eventually flow into the Penobscot River, by way of Mattamiscontis Stream. These fish grew scarce "in the years since Europeans brought mill dams, hydropower, logging roads and industrial pollution to northern Maine," per The Nature Conservancy. It was noted that the alewife population ballooned to six million in the Penobscot River in 2023 after registering near zero in 2010.

"When these fish get into the smaller streams and there are hundreds of thousands of them, you can't miss seeing them," said Dan McCaw, fisheries biologist for the Penobscot Nation. "When I first saw them in these numbers, it was a mind-blowing, guttural emotional response."

The Penobscot River restoration effort joins similar success stories from around the world. One of the largest dam removal projects in history is underway at the Klamath River in California, aiming to restore the river to its natural state. Other projects in Oregon and England have also produced impressive results.

McCaw added that while the progress made so far has been great, the Penobscot Nation is not satisfied because there's still work to be done.

"A lot of people tell me, you must be thrilled to see these gains," McCaw said. "And we're better now than we have been, but we've just turned the corner. We've taken the first steps, but we have a massive set of challenges ahead of us, still. The Penobscot River still has dozens and dozens of dams with poor or no fish passage, and the largest hydroelectric dams still do not prevent millions of fish from passing through their turbines each year."

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